The wrath of mom

2 Apr

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My mother was not a hateful woman. Very far from it. If you don’t believe me then go ahead and ask, well, anybody who ever knew her.

She was a sweetheart, my mom. Honest, hard-working, wide open-hearted, generous to an absolutely beautiful fault. I can’t say that I have ever personally known an individual who was more beloved, and by so many.

The idea that a simple peasant dish might push a woman like mom to the very darkest side of rage would seem incomprehensible.

And yet it did.

The dish that you see above is known as zuppa di suffritto. My mother used to make suffritto all the time when I was a boy. It was her favorite, in fact. Mine too. Paired not with pasta but a hearty, crusty bread nothing could be more satisfying. At least not to my mom or to me.

I did not prepare the suffritto pictured here and for one very simple reason: It would be against the law for me to do so in the United States of America.

See, I couldn’t legally get my hands on the main ingredient to make a proper suffritto, that being (sorry, people, I know this will be hard on many of you) an animal’s lungs. Other things that go into a traditional suffritto (kidneys, heart, spleen, your basic offal) can be gotten. But not the lungs.

Which brings us back to my mother. And to her rage.

The year was 1971. I was fourteen. Joe Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali in a unanimous, thrilling 15-round decision at the Garden. Jim Morrison was found dead in a bathtub in Paris. A California jury came back with a much-deserved guilty verdict for The Manson Family. Cigarette ads were banned from T.V. and radio. The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers. Not one but two Apollo moon missions were launched and completed. And 42 people died in the Attica prison riots in upstate New York, just outside the city where my grandfather’s brother settled after becoming a U.S. citizen.

It was also the year that the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned the use of “livestock lungs… as human food.”

In the City of New York news of this ban funneled through the Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, Bess Myerson, who had been appointed to the job a couple of years earlier by Mayor John Lindsay. Though this was her first political job Myerson was well-known, not only in New York but around the country as well. She’d been a regular panelist on the T.V. game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” and often filled in as co-host of the “Today Show.” Born in the Bronx, Myerson is also the first and only Jewish woman ever to hold the crown of Miss America.

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If not for her position at Consumer Affairs, Myerson would have no connection to USDA’s ban on animal lungs, none whatsoever. It was a federal mandate, not a local one. The announcement, in New York anyway, logically came out of the office that she headed.

But to my mother no such distinction existed. It was Myerson who was quoted in the brief announcement of the ban in the Daily News. And so it was she who deserved my mother’s wrath. For preventing her from making suffritto ever again.

“That bitch!” mom screeched, slapping an open palm on the newspaper resting flat on the kitchen table, spilling her morning coffee. “I hope she dies.”

It was the first and only time that I can recall my mother saying such a thing.

Many years later Myerson held another position in New York City government, that of Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, under Mayor Ed Koch. But she was forced to resign over a scandal that led to her being indicted on federal charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, and obstruction of justice. Before the trial even began she was arrested and pleaded guilty to shoplifting in Pennsylvania. Myerson was acquitted of federal crimes but “The Bess Mess,” as the sordid tale became widely known, finished her politically and ruined a once enviable reputation.

I had moved out on my own by then but followed the affair closely and, I’ll admit, with no small amount of glee.

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I am my mother’s son, after all.

And I still miss her suffritto.

Night of the grizzly

23 Mar

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I am a world-class sleeper.

Once, I slumbered right through an overnight five-alarm fire that occurred at a house just 75 feet from my bed. This was in the middle of summer and with all three bedroom windows wide open and looking straight out onto the blaze. The firefighters, police officers, emergency personnel, all of my neighbors, and even my wife were outside on the street and making a hell of a racket—for hours.

I was only informed of this after waking the next morning, while silently glancing out the window and wondering what on earth looked so very different on our narrow Jersey City street.

“You’re impossible,” my wife Joan huffed, hurling a bed pillow at the back of my head as hard as she could manage in her weakened, sleepless state. “What is wrong with you? Do you have any idea what went on around here last night?”

Lately, though, I have not been sleeping quite so soundly. And when sleep does come it is neither restful nor regenerative. I suspect this is a condition that many of us share at the moment.

For me the witching hour is right around 3 a.m. It’s the time when I must decide whether to stay in bed and hope that sleep returns or give up trying and start yet another worrisome day.

This morning was a no brainer. When a giant grizzly bear that’s been chasing you all around New Jersey is about to close in and make a meal of you, well, it is time to get the hell out of bed while the getting is still good.

To safer, happier days.

For us all.

Uncle Chick

11 Feb

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I had many fathers growing up. Four, to be sure.

There was, albeit briefly, the man whose name that I carry. Then, and in some ways even more importantly, there were my mother’s brothers. Throughout my formative years three of these men lived steps away from my mother and brothers and me.

Honorable, hard-working and very decent men all, none were aligned with the warm & fuzzy school of male role modeling.

Least of all Uncle Chick.

Chick made his living delivering home heating oil and servicing the furnaces that burned it, demanding work considering that his street route literally spanned the whole of Brooklyn. His actual birth name is John, though nobody ever called him that.

As a very young boy I was certain that Uncle Chick didn’t much care for me. If he cared for me at all. Of all the uncles in my closely knit universe Chick seemed the hardest-edged and, frankly, the least interested in being a role model to the likes of me. Besides, he and his wife Frances had four of my cousins to raise.

A few hours after my father died Chick came up beside me. There were tears in both of our eyes.

“C’mon,” he said putting an arm around me, for the first time ever I am pretty certain. “Let’s go for a ride.”

And that is the moment when I realized how wrong I had been about my very dear uncle.

Chick passed away yesterday afternoon. We haven’t lived next door to each other in a lot of years now and so I was unable to visit with him in his final hours.

The last time Chick and I spent any quality time together was a couple summers ago, in the backyard of his home in Long Island. He proudly showed me the hundreds of tomatoes ripening in his garden, and a fig tree with more fruit on it than seemed plausible. Though no longer able to operate his small powerboat it nonetheless sat berthed at a dock where he could put eyes on it whenever he pleased.

For a couple hours that day it was only the two of us, just like on the ride we had taken in his black and white DeSoto so many years ago. Approaching 90 at the time Chick seemed much quicker to emotion than I was accustomed to witnessing. He surprised and delighted me by freely reminiscing about his elder brother Joe, the revered patriarch of our entire family.

When he finished telling a particularly heartwrenching story about his brother, one that I had never heard before and have not repeated, both of us were in tears.

Again.

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Rest easy, uncle.

And thanks for the ride.

Sorta Swedish meatballs

19 Jan

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When the woman that you love is ailing and informs you, in the most certain possible terms, that a very particular comfort food will make everything all better, well…

Swedish meatballs?” I muttered. “What’s the matter, my meatballs won’t make you feel better?”

The most grownup of grownups I am not.

I know this.

Nonetheless.

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My beloved’s Swedish meatballs are, I will admit, quite wonderful. I just haven’t made them before—and she chose not to provide me with a recipe. I know that she always includes mushrooms in her sauce and so to start things off I sauteed 8 ounces of sliced mushrooms in plenty of butter until browned, then set them aside until later.

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I have no idea how she makes her meatballs but strongly suspect that they include very finely diced onion. And so, in olive oil this time, I sauteed one medium onion diced very finely until completely softened.

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At this point I was on my own, and so you’re just gonna have to follow along with me here: Mix together 1 lb. of chopped veal and 1 lb. beef, then form a ring on a work surface. In the center add a few slices of white bread that’s soaked in milk and torn apart; one egg; the cooked onion; a very good dose of nutmeg; and salt and pepper to taste. Gently mix everything together by hand. The mixture should be moist, not dry; add more milk if necessary.

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Fry up a little bit of the mixture and make sure that things taste good before making the meatballs. If you want to make adjustments to the seasoning now’s the time.

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Swedish meatballs are pretty small and so this mix netted 50 meatballs exactly.

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Fry them in olive oil until almost cooked through, in batches of course, then set aside.

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Drain off some of the oil but leave enough to nicely coat the pan. Add a little all-purpose flour and incorporate, making sure to scrape up the bits of meat that will have stuck to the pan.

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After a couple minutes of scraping and cooking the flour with the oil you’re ready to move along.

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Add a quart of stock (I used veal stock but most any will do) and incorporate with the flour and the oil. Cook for a couple minutes, stirring often.

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Then add the sauteed mushrooms.

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And then the meatballs.

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The only other ingredient that I knew I must use is sour cream (not heavy cream, which is more common in Swedish meatballs). And so after the meatballs have warmed in the sauce turn off the heat and stir in 4 ounces of sour cream (at room temperature) until fully incorporated.

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Personally I might have gone with a homemade pappardelle but the woman who needed the comforting is of the store-bought egg noodle persuasion—at least under these particular circumstances. And so that is what her Swedish meatballs are resting atop here.

See, I can be a grownup too. Sometimes.

Stuffed veal breast

5 Jan

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I won’t lie to you. This takes a bit of doing.

Just getting your hands on a proper veal breast requires planning—better still, close proximity to a good butcher. I needed to order this one through friends who own a restaurant here in Maine; they had to get it from a supplier that’s two hours away, in Boston.

So, you’ve been warned.

If you live in a place like New York or Philadelphia or Boston there’s likely a butcher nearby who can set you up quick, fast, and in a hurry. Otherwise you’ll need to strategize a bit, that’s all.

You won’t be sorry, though. Few things are as satisying as a well-prepared stuffed veal breast. Before we became legally conjoined My Associate, a finer cook than I’ll ever be, prepared for me some very fine ones, and in a kitchen no bigger than a broom closet. I would be remiss to not mention her able assistance in this, my first attempt at stuffing the breast.

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Saute a couple of onions and as many celery stalks in olive oil until softened, then set aside and allow to cool thoroughly. (You may be interested in this two-part video from a Julia Child show; what I’ve done here is follow much of the technique and some of the recipe, altering things as I saw fit.)

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For the stuffing I went with a mixture of ground veal and pork (1 lb. of the veal, about 1 1/2 lbs. of the pork), then added 1/2 lb. of diced mortadella and 1/2 cup of raw pistachios.

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Then went in 3/4 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, 1/2 cup grated Pecorino, 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, a healthy dose of chopped thyme, marjoram and sage, salt and pepper to taste, a few dashes of nutmeg, plus the sauteed onion and celery. Mix it all up and—this is very important—fry up a little bit and taste the mixture to make sure it’s to your liking. Now would be the time to adjust the seasonings before moving forward.

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Layer the bottom of a large roasting pan with carrots, the cloves of an entire head of garlic, some shallots (or onions), leeks and plenty of fresh herbs.

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Lay your veal breast over the roasting pan so that you can determine how much of it will fit into the pan. The veal breast that I scored from my friends was nearly 20 pounds and so I had to cut several ribs off and save them for another day. (Tip: When ordering a veal breast make sure to tell the butcher what you’re planning on doing with it. You don’t want a breast that’s been trimmed too close to the ribs because that will make it difficult to pull this off; it’s important to have a good layer of meat on the bone.)

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Using a sharp knife carefully cut along the ribs to create a pocket for the stuffing. Make sure to cut along the entire length and depth of the breast so that the stuffing can fill as much of the inner surface area as possible. Stop cutting around half an inch from the edges so that the stuffing won’t escape from the pocket while the breast is cooking.

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Liberally salt both the inside and outside of the breast, then fill the pocket with the stuffing.

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Tie the breast with butcher’s twine, place in the roasting pan and put it in an oven that’s preheated to 400 degrees F, uncovered, for 30 minutes. This will allow the breast to brown just a bit.

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Remove the breast from the oven and lower the temperature to 350 degrees F. Add a bottle of white wine (I used an inexpensive Trebbiano) and around four cups of stock (I used chicken stock).

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Cover tightly with foil and return to the oven. After four hours check to see that the meat is super tender. It should be. At this point remove the foil, raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees F, and return the breast to the oven, uncovered, for another 30 minutes. This will allow the crust to brown a bit more.

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This is pretty much what you’ll be looking at when you’re finished. Plenty of liquid will remain, which can be strained, de-fatted and ladled over the meat before serving.

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Speaking of serving, you can either slice off individual ribs and serve with the bone and all. Or, just pull the ribs away from the meat and stuffing and slice portions of whatever thickness you like.

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It all worked out pretty well.

For a first timer.

The eggplant that saved Christmas

19 Dec

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Christmas Eve is spent with my extended family in New York, but Christmas Day is for my wife Joan’s outside of Boston. Only three of us are in attendance, and so we’re talking about a much, much quieter affair.

Two Christmases ago my mother-in-law Gin shocked us by announcing that Christmas dinner would be supplied not by her but by a nearby Chinese restaurant known as Su Chang’s. I was informed of this well before the Christmas-morning drive from New York to Massachusetts, allowing ample time to brood over so enormous a break in holiday protocol.

Never had I eaten a Christmas dinner that wasn’t prepared by someone I loved and who loved me. Ms. Chang, if such a person exists, could not possibly be included in this group.

At around 4 pm Gin asked me to call over to the restaurant and place our order. The line, however, was busy. Very busy.

One hundred seventy redials on multiple phones and several other attempts at reaching the restaurant later it became apparent that Ms. Chang would not be providing our Christmas dinner after all. 

“I don’t think this is gonna work,” I announced finally, aware that Gin’s infrequently used kitchen housed none of the provisions required to prepare a meal, let alone one suited to a holiday.

The three of us just sat there in silence.

After a few uncomfortable moments I went to the kitchen and had a look around. There was milk, butter, a few other odds and ends in the fridge; the cupboards were pretty much bare. Alone in a small clay bowl next to a pristine toaster oven were three garlic cloves.

That’s when it hit me.

“I can make an aglio e olio,” I announced. “There’s plenty of pasta out in the car.”

There was indeed. No visit to New York at Christmastime (or most any other time, for that matter) does not include a food run to D. Coluccio & Sons in Brooklyn, and so the trunk of our car was overflowing with staples of all types. These included (but by no means were limited to) dried pastas, some lovely anchovies, and several tins of fine olive oils, all that was necessary to make an aglio e olio.

Not exactly a Christmas feast, I know.

“Well, actually,” I heard my wife say, to my ear rather tentatively. “Hm, I wonder…”

I poked my head out from the kitchen.

“You wonder what?”

She smiled.

“We’ve got Anna’s Christmas gifts in the freezer, remember?”

And out of nowhere a peaceful calm came to me. Someone that I love very dearly, and who loves me, would be providing this holiday’s meal after all.

Christmas had been saved!

Inside Gin’s freezer, you see, were the Christmas presents Aunt Anna had given to us only the night before. One was a whole stuffed chicken that she had stewed in tomato sauce, the other a tray of her fantabulous eggplant parm.

“I’m tired of running around trying to buy you two presents,” Anna sighed, fetching the unwrapped gifts from her freezer. “So I decided to give you what i know you really like.”

Both the chicken and the eggplant were frozen when Anna gave them to us, and our intention was to keep them that way until we were ready to devour them. Gin’s freezer was merely a place to store the gifts before returning home to Maine the following day.

However, and as they say, desperate times…

“I’ll run out to the car and get what I need for the pasta,” I said putting on my hat and coat. “You guys can decide what else you want to eat.”

My money was on them choosing the stuffed chicken but when I returned the bird was still cooped up in the Frigidaire. Anna’s eggplant parm was in the microwave defrosting.

I have never known my aunt’s eggplant to garner tepid reviews and this time was no different. Gin liked it quite a lot; she even kept the leftovers. Dammit!

Still, she was far more amused by the eggplant’s mere presence in her freezer—and on her dinner table.

“We’re eating Christmas dinner from the trunk of a car,” she laughed. And laughed. And then laughed some more.

After we’d finished eating I called Anna to tell her what had happened and to thank her for saving our holiday. As is so often the case our conversation was brief but very much to the point.

“You’re not supposed to eat Chinese on Christmas anyway,” she scolded me. “What’s wrong with you? Sei pazzo?

“I love you too, Anna,” I told my aunt before the line went dead and she was gone.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Hearty lamb ragu

15 Dec

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This dish may look ordinary but it’s actually quite a rarity here in the United States. Of the nearly 220 pounds of meat we consume per capita in a year only about a pound of it is lamb.

Hell, there’s more than that in this one recipe alone. Fifty percent more, in fact.

Lamb is the kind of thing that you actually need to think about when planning a meal for guests. Because many people just don’t eat it.

Ever.

I guarantee you that a good number of readers aren’t even with us anymore, having moved along at the mere mention of lamb in the headline.

Their loss. Because it makes for a pretty swell ragu.

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In a good amount of olive oil brown 1 1/2 pounds of ground lamb in a pot that’s good for making sauce.

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Add in a diced carrot or two, a couple celery stalks, an onion, a couple sliced garlic cloves, and some crushed hot pepper. (There was some fennel in the fridge so I tossed in a little of that too.)

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Add at least a half cup or more of wine (white or red will do, though I used dry vermouth here), turn up the heat to high and allow the wine to evaporate.

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Add one 28-oz. can of tomatoes (I used crushed here but any will do), one cup of chicken stock, 1/2 teaspooon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander, some fresh rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir it all up, lower the heat to medium or lower and let things simmer for around an hour and a half. Stir occasionally, of course, and add more stock, or even water, if needed.

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It’ll be enough to feed six lamb eaters.

If you that many.